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By Harold Paddock
June 2014

Local boy makes good!

That might be both an oversimplification and an understatement, but 150 years ago in 1864, Clermont County native Ulysses S. Grant took command of all Union forces in the Civil War and history changed.

Based on success at Forts Donelson and Henry, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, in March of 1864 President Lincoln promoted Grant to Lieutenant General (three stars) and appointed him as the Commanding General of all the Union armies. Such an arrangement was practical because of the skill and ability of another Ohio native, General William T. Sherman. Grant so trusted his good friend that he was able to put Sherman in overall charge of the Western theater, and come to Washington to personally take charge of the frequently stalemated Eastern theater. While Grant did not directly command the Army of the Potomac (it remained nominally under the command of the victor at Gettysburg, General George Meade), he made his headquarters in the field with the Army and provided direction through Meade.

Grant's strategic vision and leadership changed the entire approach of the Union war effort. Some earlier Union generals had sought a "decisive battle" when one gigantic struggle would end Confederate resistance and the war. Other Union generals, such as George McClellan, had avoided decisive battles on the theory that a negotiated peace with the South was preferable. The unified approach of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman was one of "total war" where Confederate armies would be engaged, worn down, and eventually destroyed, along with the Southern capacity to support the armies in the field.

While Sherman tied down Confederate forces outside Atlanta, Grant moved the Army of the Potomac south to engage the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee. Their first clash was on May 4-5, 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness, a two day slugging match in the dense forests and thickets west of Fredericksburg, Virginia. While the battle could best be considered a bloody draw, Grant did something no Union general had done before. Instead of retreating and reorganizing, Grant marched the army south and east, toward Richmond, in an effort to turn Lee's flank. Lee responded by moving east to protect his flank, and the Overland Campaign began.

Grant vowed "to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." And he did. Subsequent battles, including those at Spotsylvania Courthouse, North Anna, and Cold Harbor, drove Lee to the outskirts of Richmond in just eight weeks. The Union troops settled into the Siege of Petersburg, Richmond's railroad and supply link to the rest of the South. Cavalry units under Grant and Lee also clashed, at the Battle of Yellow Tavern (where Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded) and the Battle of Trevilian Station (the largest all cavalry battle of the entire war.)

As overall commander, Grant also coordinated the efforts of other Union forces, such as the destruction of rebel food supplies in the Shenandoah Valley by troops under another Ohioan, General Phil Sheridan. Meanwhile, Sherman eventually captured Atlanta and began his famous March to the Sea, arriving at Savannah, Georgia, on December 21, 1864. Grant laid siege to Petersburg and Richmond for nine months, from June of 1864 to March of 1865. The siege was not without efforts at spectacular breakthroughs, such as the use of Pennsylvania coalminers among the Union regiments to tunnel under Lee's line and explode four tons of gunpowder. Sadly, the resulting crater gave its name to a short but intense battle with no strategic change of situation, as Union troops could not exploit the opening created by the blast.

Ultimately, Grant's left flank under the command of General Sheridan was able to outflank Lee to the south at Five Forks, and sever Lee's railroad artery to the Confederate heartland. Lee, outnumbered, cut off from supply, and faced with Grant's tenacity, was forced to flee Richmond to the west. Starting on April 2, 1865, Lee withdrew his army from Richmond, hoping to link up with the only other existing Confederate army, that of General Joe Johnston, now facing Sherman in North Carolina.

The campaign became a race, as Lee moved his depleted forces west along the Appomattox River toward possible resupply, and Union infantry and cavalry sped to cut Lee off. Ultimately, the cavalry troops under Sheridan and one more Ohio general, George Armstrong Custer, beat Lee to his supply wagon goal. Lee, surrounded and faced with overwhelming odds and no food for his men, accepted Grant's offer of talks "to prevent the further effusion of blood." On Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean's house in the village of Appomattox Court House. Just thirteen months elapsed from Grant's promotion to Lee's surrender.

Grant did not achieve this victory alone, as his subordinate generals and his troops were the instruments of his master plan. But the Civil War was for most practical purposes over, due in large measure to the skill, strategic thinking, and relentless determination of General Ulysses Grant, Clermont County's home town hero.


The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, by H. W. Brands
Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War by Charles Bracelen Flood
Blood, Tears, & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War by James H. Bissland
April, 1865 by Jay Winik